Bernie Glassman, Zen Master
Zen Peacemakers Founder
(1939 - 2018)
A Brief Biography
Zen Master Bernie Glassman was a world-renowned pioneer in the American Zen Movement. He was a spiritual leader, published author, accomplished academic and successful businessman.
Bernie was born in Brooklyn, New York in 1939. His parents were immigrants from Eastern Europe and he grew up in a Jewish family with a strong socialist orientation. His mother’s Hebrew name was Chana and father’s name was Otto, though he used the name Albert with family. Bernie’s Hebrew name was Benyamin.
After graduating from Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, he went to work for McDonnell-Douglas in California in 1960 as an aeronautical engineer, concentrating on interplanetary flights. He obtained a Ph.D. in Applied Mathematics from UCLA in 1970.
Bernie spent decades teaching Zen and working in Socially Engaged Buddhism, founding Zen Peacemakers in 1996 and developing Bearing Witness Retreats. He passed away in Massachusetts USA on November 4th, 2018 from natural causes. It was the eve of the 23rd Zen Peacemakers Auschwitz-Birkenau Bearing Witness Retreat.
He is survived by his wife Roshi Eve Marko, his daughter Alisa, son Marc, sister Sally Blatter, brother-in-law Hy Blatter, his first wife Helen Harkaspi, many cousins, nephews and nieces, and four grandchildren.
On Bernie’s Passing
Following Bernie’s death, several media outlets shared news of his life, accomplishments, and passing:
New York Times: Bernard Glassman, Zen Master and Social Activist, Dies at 79
Lion’s Roar: Bernie Glassman, pioneer of American Zen, dies at 79
Tricycle: Bernie Glassman Passes Away
Lion’s Roar: One Day With Bernie
Zen Training and Teaching
In 1967, Bernie began his Zen studies with Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi Roshi, Founder of the Zen Center of Los Angeles. He became a Zen teacher in 1976, and in 1980 he founded his own Zen Community of New York in the Bronx, New York. He started the Greyston Bakery, at first staffed by Zen students, as a livelihood for the Community, then made it a vehicle for social enterprise in Yonkers, 3 miles north (see below). In 1995 Bernie Glassman received inka, the final seal of approval from his teacher. During that year and in 1996 he served as Spiritual Head of the White Plum Lineage, comprising hundreds of Zen groups and centers in the US, Latin America and Europe, and became the first President of the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of America. His Dharma Family includes dharma teachers, zen priests, zen preceptors, zen entrepreneurs, Christian clergy, Rabbis, Sufi Sheiks and multi-faith peacemakers. Click here for a list of Bernie’s Zen teachers and dharma successors.
Bernie became a social entrepreneur in 1982, articulating a vision that socially responsible businesses can have a double bottom line: generating profits and serving the community. The Greyston Bakery was the first such venture, but it was merely one piece of a larger socially responsible business model which he developed: the Greyston Mandala (the Sanskrit mandala can be loosely translated as circle of life), a network of for-profits and not-for-profits working together to improve the lives of individuals and the larger inner city community of southwest Yonkers. Greyston, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in 2017, provides permanent housing, jobs, job training, child care, after-school programs and a host of other supportive services to a large community of formerly homeless families, advancing the principles of empowerment, empathy, and responsible action.
Greyston Bakery. Founded in 1982 in the southwest corner of Yonkers, a poor neighborhood beset by high unemployment, violence and drugs, the bakery began to hire people that conventional businesses had deemed unemployable. It trained its employees in bakery crafts and soon they were producing some of New York’s most expensive, high-end cakes and tarts sold in the city’s fanciest eateries. In 1990 it began to produce brownies for Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream and its revenues shot up dramatically. Since its humble founding, the bakery grew into a successful $14 million business with more than 75 employees. Its hiring remains to this very day “First come, first served,” and much of its profits are recycled into seed money for its sister not-for-profits, thus making the entire network more sustainable and financially independent.
Greyston Family Inn. This is Greyston’s housing and support services arm. Since 1986 it has developed hundreds of low-cost permanent apartments for homeless families, a large childcare center, tenant support services, and after-school programs, providing wraparound support to families trying to come out of the cycle of unemployment, homelessness, and public assistance.
Maitri Center and Issan House. Opened in 1997, Maitri is a medical center serving 150 people with AIDS-related illnesses. It was among the first facilities in the country to provide alternative care therapies to people with HIV/AIDS. Issan House provides housing for many of Maitri’s patients.
The entire Greyston Mandala (as of 2011) hires 175 people and its programs reach 2,200 community members annually in southwest Yonkers. Its model of integrating for-profits, not-for-profits, and spirituality has been studied by many other nonprofits and cities across the country as well as in universities. Bernie Glassman served as Founder and President/CEO of Greyston from 1982 till he left it in 1996. He returned to serve Greyston and Yonkers one day per month in 2012.
Spiritually-Based Social Action and Peacemaking
In January of 1994, while leading a bearing witness retreat in Washington, DC, on the occasion of his 55th birthday, Bernie decided to create the Zen Peacemaker Order, for Zen practitioners dedicated to the cause of peace and social justice. Subsequently, the concept was broadened to become an international, interfaith network called the Peacemaker Community, stressing the integration of spiritual practice and social action through Three Tenets:
Not-knowing, thereby giving up fixed ideas about ourselves and the universe;
Bearing witness to the joy and suffering of the world; and
Loving action for ourselves and the world.
Together with his then-wife and co-founder, Sandra Jishu Holmes, Bernie left Greyston in the end of 1996 and became President of this large community of spiritually-based activists. He took a leave when his wife died in 1998, but from 2000 till 2004 he continued serving as President, devoting his energy to developing the Peacemaker Community and supporting various social action and peacemaking projects in Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, and the United States. This organization is now known as Zen Peacemakers International.
Awards and Publications
- Ethics in Action Award by the Ethical Culture Society of Westchester
- E-chievement Award by Toms of Maine
- Man of the Year by the Westchester Coalition of Food Pantries
- Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 1993 by Business Week
- Founding board member of the Social Ventures Network, a network of businesses committed to social change. Bernie continues to serve as one of its spiritual leaders.
- Purpose Prize Fellow in 2007, an award given to those over 60 with the passion and experience to discover new opportunities, come up with new solutions, and make lasting changes.
- Social Innovator Award in 2016, by the Lewis Institute at Babson. Bernie was presented with the award for founding Greyston, an organization dedicated to job creation and community empowerment.
- The Dude and The Zen Master (Penguin, January 2013), with Jeff Bridges
- Instructions to the Cook: A Zen Masters Lessons in Living a Life that Matters (Bell Tower, April 1996), with Rick Fields.
- Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace (Bell Tower, May 1997), with Eve Marko
- Infinite Circle: Studies in Zen (Shambhala Publication, 2002).
- Hazy Moon of Enlightenment: On Zen Practice III, Zen Writings Series (Wisdom Publications, Jun 1978), with Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi
- On Zen Practice, Zen writings series (Wisdom Publications, Jun 1977), with Hakuyu Taizan Maezumi
Documenting Bernie’s Life:
Photographer Peter Cunningham accompanied Zen Peacemakers Founder Roshi Bernie throughout his career for over three decades. From Greyston in Yonkers to the first Bearing witness in Auschwitz, Peter documented not only Bernie’s lifework and vision, but also important chapters in the history of the Zen Peacemakers community. Many of the photographs on this website were taken by him. ZPI acknowledges with gratitude Peter’s dedication and contribution. See more of Peter’s work on his website, HERE.